Photo: Paul Rudderow
We’re not the only ones who get it. I no longer feel alone. Neither should you.
Someone else understands Philadelphia Union’s midfield.
During Saturday’s Union-Red Bulls match, NBC analyst Kyle Martino perfectly summarized one Union midfielder’s entire season in a single comment.
I teared up. Sniffled. Sneezed. And felt a little less alone in the world as I watched the Union once again sit back, absorb pressure, cede possession, and fire out the occasional dangerous counterattack in another pragmatic, unattractive, occasionally maddening but ultimately successful outing.
The state of the Union midfield obsesses many Union fans, because the rest of the team is so damn good. Improve two spots in the midfield (and you know which ones), and this is a championship contender.
Martino nailed it. Finally, an outsider gets it. It took him two straight games of covering the Union to do so. The Union’s great TV analyst, Alejandro Moreno, sees the Union every week. He gets it too, I’ve found.
Here’s how Moreno and Martino explain the Union midfield.
“… he moves at the same speed the entire game ….”
“Too often, for the Philadelphia Union, Keon Daniel and Brian Carroll (sit) side by side when they have the ball, and it’s easy for one defender to just cut out those two. Yeah, they need Keon Daniel to get forward. He needs to be the one right underneath the forwards picking up the ball. Very talented player, skillful with the ball at his feet, but it seems like he moves at the same speed the entire game and just doesn’t give them enough offensively to be able to play in the hole and be expected to be a playmaker and create for this team.”
– Kyle Martino, Aug. 17
This is an accurate description of Daniel. For his critics and defenders, that should be enough. No more pretenses to the idea that the Union’s supposed 4-1-3-2 is anything but an empty bucket crossed with a 4-2-4. He’s not a bad player by any stretch, but neither is he a CAM for Philadelphia.
Cruz vs. Farfan
“(Danny) Cruz used a lot of energy tonight and hasn’t really been able to run at guys and get too much service in. So (Michael) Farfan’s more of a playmaker, more of a creator. Bring him in. (He) won’t play in a wide position, will sort of sit in with Keon Daniel and Brian Carroll.”
– Martino, Aug. 17
This less ambitious quote fits most games when Cruz starts and Farfan replaces him.
How do you fix the Union midfield, Alejandro?
“That’s a loaded question. Look. Ideally, you would like to have midfielders in the final third that provide you with a presence in the box. Also, you would like to have guys that are able to not only play sideways passes but are able to hit penetrating passes and eliminate lines of defenders.
“The Union at times turn away from those penetrating passes and look for the easier, more comfortable option. And there is nothing wrong with that because at times, I’ve also said that the Union lack possession. So you can’t have it both ways, right? Sometimes when you try to hit that penetrating pass, it’s a more high risk pass. But I also feel that the Union do a very good job of winning the ball in good spots, and there’s an opportunity there to hit that pass forward, try to take a change going forward, and most of the midfielders currently on the Union do not look to play that ball forward. And if they look for it, at times they turn away and try to find the easier pass or the most comfortable pass, the safe pass.
“The guys on the outside, if you’re going to have guys that you consider to be good one-on-one players out on the wing, this guy’s got to be able to provide you with seven, eight, nine crosses every game, and certainly, as you said, early in the season, you would get a game where those crosses would be there, and then you would get three games that those crosses wouldn’t be there. And so if you’re going to demand finishing from Conor Casey, if you’re going to demand finishing from Jack McInerney, Antoine Hoppenot, whoever the case may be, they also have to have the service. So I would say for the outside midfielders, it would be important once you get in a good position, then you got to deliver a quality ball, and then guys out of the middle of midfield, not only do they generate possession, which is important, but they also have to sprinkle in a penetrating pass that allows them to be dangerous higher up the field rather than keeping everything in front of the other team’s back four.”
Alejandro Moreno, June 27 interview on The Philly Soccer Show
Nothing has changed since Moreno said that.
Where does Le Toux belong, Alejandro?
“Sebastien gives you a quality of service that this team simply doesn’t have, and then he doesn’t do very well with his back to goal. If we go back to 2010, and I can talk to my relation with Sebastien on the field, I would play with my back to goal and then Sebastien had the freedom to go in behind and work the sidelines. That is something that he feels more comfortable doing. He’s given the freedom to run down the line. He’ll give you some work defensively that certainly will give you a presence down the right hand side where he’s going to be one touch, second touch is a cross in, and he’s also going to provide you with another option in the box if the ball’s coming in from the left hand side, he’s the kind of guy who can close into the far post. So yeah, I think Sebastien, whether he likes it or not, that’s where he’s best, and that’s where he benefits the team the most, is coming from the right hand side and providing the team with that quality service.”
–Moreno, June 27
Few know Le Toux’s style as well as Moreno, who paired with Le Toux as a target forward in 2010.
I don’t think Le Toux is a midfielder. Neither do those who watched him regularly last year in New York. But he is a fantastic passer who makes good runs, and Moreno understands his style as well as anyone. Union manager John Hackworth is doing a good job of gradually figuring out how best to play Le Toux with Conor Casey and Jack McInerney.
What about Michael Farfan, Alejandro?
“… there’s nobody more talented, in terms of pure soccer talent, than Michael Farfan in the Philadelphia Union. I’ve said that many times in the broadcast.
“And at times, I’ve been, I wouldn’t say critical of Michael Farfan, but I’d say that I expected more from Michael Farfan. I think he expects more out of himself as well. He is a guy that can be a difference maker for this team, and so the frustrating part is to see many times where there’s an opportunity to go for it, to take a chance, to take somebody one on one, to play a penetrating ball, and (instead) turn away from that and play backwards.
“That gives you a clear sign of somebody who’s struggling with confidence. And to struggle with confidence is very easily explained, and that is, you said it, the expectations ballooned out of proportion in terms of what was achieved last year and what was expected to be achieved this year. And once you don’t get off to a good start and (fail to gain) in any way, shape or form any rhythm early on in the season, in terms of their preseason and what Michael was doing on the field. So when you have high expectations and you’re not able to live up to those high expectations, now all of a sudden, doubt creeps in, and lack of confidence creeps in, and it’s very difficult then to get that momentum back.
“He’s had trouble with injuries. He’s had trouble with continuity and consistency, and really in the end, that’s the most important thing. He hasn’t been a consistent player for this team. You can live with a guy who perhaps is not giving you an assist a game or not providing you with a presence in the box or whatever the case may be, as long as you get a consistent performance. You haven’t had that with Michael Farfan.
“And if I were him, I’d press the reset button. I’d say, well, let’s turn the page on what has gone on till now. Let me start off by completing a five-yard pass. And then once I complete that, can I take a man on. And once I take that man on, can I now look to take a shot on goal. And those small things during the game that you can build upon in small blocks, and once you put two or three blocks together, all of a sudden you got yourself a building. So you have to have the ability to turn the page on what has gone on so far, know that you’re a good player, and a good player’s not just a guy who does stepovers, by the way, and back heels. No, no. Impact the game. Influence the game in the final third, and be the kind of player not only that you expect to be of yourself, but that this team needs you to be in order to be truly competitive for the rest of the season.”
–Moreno, June 27
That’s spot on. Yes, it leaves out the fact that Farfan hasn’t played his most comfortable position (right midfield) nearly enough, but overall, it’s accurate.
Time to hit that reset button. Farfan is too good to be a bench player in a midfield this weak. In four years of following the Union, I haven’t seen another player as enjoyable to watch as Farfan when he’s on his game. I think he’ll work through it all. It’s just a matter of when.